stuff I read

When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon by Joshua D. Mezrich, MD

39893608Summary from Goodreads:
At the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Joshua Mezrich creates life from loss, transplanting organs from one body to another. In this intimate, profoundly moving work, he illuminates the extraordinary field of transplantation that enables this kind of miracle to happen every day.

When Death Becomes Life is a thrilling look at how science advances on a grand scale to improve human lives. Mezrich examines more than one hundred years of remarkable medical breakthroughs, connecting this fascinating history with the inspiring and heartbreaking stories of his transplant patients. Combining gentle sensitivity with scientific clarity, Mezrich reflects on his calling as a doctor and introduces the modern pioneers who made transplantation a reality—maverick surgeons whose feats of imagination, bold vision, and daring risk taking generated techniques and practices that save millions of lives around the world.

Mezrich takes us inside the operating room and unlocks the wondrous process of transplant surgery, a delicate, intense ballet requiring precise timing, breathtaking skill, and at times, creative improvisation. In illuminating this work, Mezrich touches the essence of existence and what it means to be alive. Most physicians fight death, but in transplantation, doctors take from death. Mezrich shares his gratitude and awe for the privilege of being part of this transformative exchange as the dead give their last breath of life to the living. After all, the donors are his patients, too.

When Death Becomes Life also engages in fascinating ethical and philosophical debates: How much risk should a healthy person be allowed to take to save someone she loves? Should a patient suffering from alcoholism receive a healthy liver? What defines death, and what role did organ transplantation play in that definition? The human story behind the most exceptional medicine of our time, Mezrich’s riveting book is a beautiful, poignant reminder that a life lost can also offer the hope of a new beginning.

When When Death Becomes Life came across my pitch emails a few months ago, I marked it down as a to-read immediately. A history of medicine, specifically transplant medicine? Sign me up.

Mezrich presents a history of solid organ transplantation alongside his own memoir of learning to become a transplant surgeon (mostly kidneys and livers). Each road was long and hard and Mezrich is very honest about his own path as a surgeon. If you know anything about this branch of medicine, it comes with significant risk of failure and he also gets into the ethics of listing patients with significant co-morbidies or addition. Mezrich includes two chapters where he presents the stories of some of his recipients and of the donors and their families. If you are not moved by those stories you have no soul.

This is also a reminder to consider marking “Organ Donor” on your driver’s license and having that conversation with your family. We are unlikely ever to have a “voluntary opt-out” policy in this country, so patients in need of a transplant are reliant on people, mostly their loved ones, consenting to donation when the situation arises.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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Reading Women · stuff I read

Victoria The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

33894921Summary from Goodreads:
From International New York Times columnist Julia Baird comes a biography of Queen Victoria. Drawing on previously unpublished papers, Victoria: The Queen is a new portrait of the real woman behind the myth—a story of love and heartbreak, of devotion and grief, of strength and resilience.

When Victoria was born, in 1819, the world was a very different place. Revolution would begin to threaten many of Europe’s monarchies in the coming decades. In Britain, a generation of royals had indulged their whims at the public’s expense, and republican sentiment was growing. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape, and the British Empire was commanding ever larger tracts of the globe. Born into a world where woman were often powerless, during a century roiling with change, Victoria went on to rule the most powerful country on earth with a decisive hand.

Fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, Victoria was an ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary role. As a girl, she defied her mother’s meddling and an adviser’s bullying, forging an iron will of her own. As a teenage queen, she eagerly grasped the crown and relished the freedom it brought her. At twenty years old, she fell passionately in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, eventually giving birth to nine children. She loved sex and delighted in power. She was outspoken with her ministers, overstepping boundaries and asserting her opinions. After the death of her adored Albert, she began a controversial, intimate relationship with her servant John Brown. She survived eight assassination attempts over the course of her lifetime. And as science, technology, and democracy were dramatically reshaping the world, Victoria was a symbol of steadfastness and security—queen of a quarter of the world’s population at the height of the British Empire’s reach.

Drawing on sources that include revelations about Victoria’s relationship with John Brown, Julia Baird brings to life the story of a woman who struggled with so many of the things we do today: balancing work and family, raising children, navigating marital strife, losing parents, combating anxiety and self-doubt, finding an identity, searching for meaning.

I picked up a galley of Victoria the Queen at BEA in 2016 and it, unfortunately, has been in a pile of to-read books ever since. But I recently found it on the library’s Libby site, so I decided to give it a read. Baird has done a remarkable job reconstructing the inner life of a woman whose family and official biographers tried to mold into the myth she had become. Victoria was remarkably contradictory in her views, believing that she had the right to tell her ministers what to do and shape foreign policy yet felt inferior to her husband and didn’t believe in women’s suffrage, etc. (which I was surprised to learn).

(The audiobook narrator was dreadfully slow – I had the speed kicked up to 2.25x by the end – and had terrible German pronunciation.)

Dear FTC: I had a galley of this book from BEA but wound up borrowing the audiobook from the library.

audiobooks · Chemistry · stuff I read

The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Deborah Blum

43228964Summary from Goodreads:
From Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times -bestselling author Deborah Blum, the dramatic true story of how food was made safe in the United States and the heroes, led by the inimitable Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who fought for change

By the end of nineteenth century, food was dangerous. Lethal, even. “Milk” might contain formaldehyde, most often used to embalm corpses. Decaying meat was preserved with both salicylic acid, a pharmaceutical chemical, and borax, a compound first identified as a cleaning product. This was not by accident; food manufacturers had rushed to embrace the rise of industrial chemistry, and were knowingly selling harmful products. Unchecked by government regulation, basic safety, or even labelling requirements, they put profit before the health of their customers. By some estimates, in New York City alone, thousands of children were killed by “embalmed milk” every year. Citizens–activists, journalists, scientists, and women’s groups–began agitating for change. But even as protective measures were enacted in Europe, American corporations blocked even modest regulations. Then, in 1883, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemistry professor from Purdue University, was named chief chemist of the agriculture department, and the agency began methodically investigating food and drink fraud, even conducting shocking human tests on groups of young men who came to be known as, “The Poison Squad.”

Over the next thirty years, a titanic struggle took place, with the courageous and fascinating Dr. Wiley campaigning indefatigably for food safety and consumer protection. Together with a gallant cast, including the muckraking reporter Upton Sinclair, whose fiction revealed the horrific truth about the Chicago stockyards; Fannie Farmer, then the most famous cookbook author in the country; and Henry J. Heinz, one of the few food producers who actively advocated for pure food, Dr. Wiley changed history. When the landmark 1906 Food and Drug Act was finally passed, it was known across the land, as “Dr. Wiley’s Law.”

Blum brings to life this timeless and hugely satisfying “David and Goliath” tale with righteous verve and style, driving home the moral imperative of confronting corporate greed and government corruption with a bracing clarity, which speaks resoundingly to the enormous social and political challenges we face today.

The Poison Squad is a very good overview of the development of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the political struggles of the era which are, annoyingly, still the same struggles today. “Regulation stifles business and prevents us from making as much greedy money as possible” versus “please stop trying to poison the populace with unknown food additives, pesticides, chemical dyes, etc.” (you can guess what side I come down on). It’s a bit dry in places but since I tend to listen to audiobooks on 1.5-1.75x speed I didn’t notice as much.

Dear FTC: I borrowed the audiobook from the library via Libby.

mini-review · stuff I read

Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood by Karina Longworth

38647394Summary from Goodreads:
In this riveting popular history, the creator of You Must Remember This probes the inner workings of Hollywood’s glamorous golden age through the stories of some of the dozens of actresses pursued by Howard Hughes, to reveal how the millionaire mogul’s obsessions with sex, power and publicity trapped, abused, or benefitted women who dreamt of screen stardom.

In recent months, the media has reported on scores of entertainment figures who used their power and money in Hollywood to sexually harass and coerce some of the most talented women in cinema and television. But as Karina Longworth reminds us, long before the Harvey Weinsteins there was Howard Hughes—the Texas millionaire, pilot, and filmmaker whose reputation as a cinematic provocateur was matched only by that as a prolific womanizer.

His supposed conquests between his first divorce in the late 1920s and his marriage to actress Jean Peters in 1957 included many of Hollywood’s most famous actresses, among them Billie Dove, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Lana Turner. From promoting bombshells like Jean Harlow and Jane Russell to his contentious battles with the censors, Hughes—perhaps more than any other filmmaker of his era—commoditized male desire as he objectified and sexualized women. Yet there were also numerous women pulled into Hughes’s grasp who never made it to the screen, sometimes virtually imprisoned by an increasingly paranoid and disturbed Hughes, who retained multitudes of private investigators, security personnel, and informers to make certain these actresses would not escape his clutches.

Vivid, perceptive, timely, and ridiculously entertaining, Seduction is a landmark work that examines women, sex, and male power in Hollywood during its golden age—a legacy that endures nearly a century later.

I’ve been a fan of Karina Longworth’s work on her podcast You Must Remember This for a while so I was really excited to see that she had a book coming out about Howard Hughes. Not because of Howard Hughes, because ew, gross, but because she was going to shine a light on the women he treated like garbage. Seduction is the story of how Hughes had this weirdly charming personality, convinced a lot of people that he knew what he was doing in the movie business, and ultimately became a person suffering from untreated mental illness.

One of the major themes in Seduction is how Hughes controlled women’s careers in the movie industry, to the extent that some of them didn’t even work during the time they lived in Hollywood. Women like Jane Russell, Faith Domergue, and Billie Dove who were poised for Betty Davis-levels of stardom, and who were good actresses, were reduced to their noticeable physical assets and made far fewer movies than contemporaries at other studios. Myraid other young women, some of them young enough to require their mothers to come with them, were lured to Hollywood with the promise of stardom and then kept under constant surveillance and prevented from working.

While I was not shocked that he was a completely gross, creepy, controlling predator, particularly toward very young women of a certain physical type, I was surprised that he was a really bad businessman and filmmaker (I should have known about the filmmaker stuff, I have seen The Conqueror, do not recommend). He tinkered with movies so long that they went over budget, or no longer made sense. RKO died under his leadership. The only reason he had money to blow in Hollywood was because he inherited an extremely prosperous manufacturing company from this father and then picked up lucrative defense contracts during World War II.

Hughes was not the only gross dude running around Hollywood between the 1920s and 1960s. There were a lot, trust me. For all the glitz and glamour, “classic” Hollywood had a lot of garbage hiding under rocks and Karina shines a very strong light on one particular corner. Now, if you have listened to some of the podcast episodes that were produced as part of the publicity for Seduction don’t worry that the same information is re-hashed in both places – the episodes and the book complement each other, so I highly recommend both.

Dear FTC: I borrowed a copy of this book from my store.

mini-review · stuff I read

American Overdose: The Opioid Tragedy in Three Acts by Chris McGreal

39089122Summary from Goodreads:
A comprehensive portrait of a uniquely American epidemic–devastating in its findings and damning in its conclusions
The opioid epidemic has been described as “one of the greatest mistakes of modern medicine.” But calling it a mistake is a generous rewriting of the history of greed, corruption, and indifference that pushed the US into consuming more than 80 percent of the world’s opioid painkillers.
Journeying through lives and communities wrecked by the epidemic, Chris McGreal reveals not only how Big Pharma hooked Americans on powerfully addictive drugs, but the corrupting of medicine and public institutions that let the opioid makers get away with it.
The starting point for McGreal’s deeply reported investigation is the miners promised that opioid painkillers would restore their wrecked bodies, but who became targets of “drug dealers in white coats.”
A few heroic physicians warned of impending disaster. But American Overdose exposes the powerful forces they were up against, including the pharmaceutical industry’s coopting of the Food and Drug Administration and Congress in the drive to push painkillers–resulting in the resurgence of heroin cartels in the American heartland. McGreal tells the story, in terms both broad and intimate, of people hit by a catastrophe they never saw coming. Years in the making, its ruinous consequences will stretch years into the future.

I haven’t read Dreamland or Dopesick yet (they’re on the TBR, I swear) but my first dive into books about the opioid crisis made me Very Angry. Like, gnaw-my-arm-off levels of frustration akin to reading Bad Blood angry.

The actual lack of empathy and compassion of not only Big Pharma representatives, lobbyists, and politicians, but the physicians and other healthcare workers….it is appalling. All the systems that are supposed to prevent problems like this failed us because Capitalism and Political Lobbying (like, WTF, do people not understand about Conflict of Interest???). Also, there was/is an extremely concerning disregard of actual science by scientists and physicians. “Oh, legitimate pain is a barrier to addiction” – did they not actually take biochemistry? None of these people should be allowed to practice science or medicine again.

The sad thing is that we really do lack actual, non-subjective methods of measuring pain and further research into how the body processes pain signals. Getting good research into those areas will help develop non-opioid treatment methods. But people would rather throw a pill at it instead of try something more labor-intensive like extended physical therapy or massage. Even if new treatments are developed it will be too late for tens of thousands of people who got hooked on opioids or died from overdoses or from taking tainted opioids.

McGreal also touched upon the privilege granted to those rural, white, blue-collar workers with legitimate pain caught up in the money-making schemes of unscrupulous, greedy “practitioners” and now addicted to powerful narcotics versus the hard-line taken by law enforcement regarding the crack cocaine epidemic affecting people of color in urban areas during the 1980s (who probably also had legitimate pain issues and little access to medication or ongoing quality medical care). He didn’t delve too deeply into racism or the disparities but did point them out to make plain the sympathy shown to one group and not the other.

A definite recommend for everyone.

Dear FTC: I borrowed a copy of this book from my store.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing by Merve Emre

39721925Summary from Goodreads:
An unprecedented history of a personality test devised in the 1940s by a mother and daughter, both homemakers, that has achieved cult-like status and is used in today’s most distinguished boardrooms, classrooms, and beyond.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is the most popular personality test in the world. It has been harnessed by Fortune 100 companies, universities, hospitals, churches, and the military. Its language – of extraversion vs. introversion, thinking vs. feeling – has inspired online dating platforms and BuzzFeed quizzes alike. And yet despite the test’s widespread adoption, experts in the field of psychometric testing, a $500 million industry, struggle to account for its success – no less to validate its results. How did the Myers-Briggs test insinuate itself into our jobs, our relationships, our Internet, our lives?

First conceived in the 1920s by the mother-daughter team of Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, a pair of aspiring novelists and devoted homemakers, the Myers-Briggs was designed to bring the gospel of Carl Jung to the masses. But it would take on a life of its own, reaching from the smoke-filled boardrooms of mid-century New York to Berkeley, California, where it was honed against some of the twentieth century’s greatest creative minds. It would travel across the world to London, Zurich, Cape Town, Melbourne, and Tokyo; to elementary schools, nunneries, wellness retreats, and the closed-door corporate training sessions of today.

Drawing from original reporting and never-before-published documents, The Personality Brokers examines nothing less than the definition of the self – our attempts to grasp, categorize, and quantify our personalities. Surprising and absorbing, the book, like the test at its heart, considers the timeless question: What makes you you?

Chances are, you’ve probably taken a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test – with all the questions that seem to have no answer (I’m an INTJ, hello). Have you ever been curious about the origins of a test that so many companies have come to rely on for team-building and sales success? In The Personality Brokers Emre has set herself the task of investigating the origins of this million-dollar industry. And it turns out that the current owners of the MBTI really don’t want anyone poking into the rigor of the indicator. In-teresting….

If you were ever a skeptic of personality testing then this book will confirm that belief. I had suspected that the MBTI was less than scientifically rigorous, but WOW is it not even valid over repeat testing. The author really pulled a lot of information together – even when she couldn’t gain access to Isabel Myers Briggs papers – to try and shed some light on this widespread (and lucrative) evaluation. The beginning of the book was a bit hard to get into but it picked up. Once you get through all the Jungian fan-worship it gets better.

The Personality Brokers is out today.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · Read My Own Damn Books · stuff I read

Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley by Alison Weir

835832Summary from Goodreads:
On the night of 10 February 1567 an explosion devastated the Edinburgh residence of Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. The noise was heard as far away as Holyrood Palace, where Queen Mary was attending a wedding masque. Those arriving at the scene of devastation found, in the garden, the naked corpses of Darnley and his valet. Neither had died in the explosion, but both bodies bore marks of strangulation.

It was clear that they had been murdered and the house destroyed in an attempt to obliterate the evidence. Darnley was not a popular king-consort, but he was regarded by many as having a valid claim to the English throne. For this reason Elizabeth I had opposed his family’s longstanding wish to marry him to Mary Stuart, who herself claimed to be the rightful queen of England.

Alison Weir’s investigation of Darnley’s murder is set against one of the most dramatic periods in British history. Her conclusions shed a brilliant new light on the actions and motives of the conspirators and, in particular, the extent of Mary’s own involvement.

Having finished Jenny Wormald’s analysis of Mary’s personal rule, I jumped right into Alison Weir’s exhaustive analysis of the murder of Lord Darnley, one of the only Weir biographies I hadn’t yet read. And it’s pretty safe to conclude that Weir has turned over all the stones currently available to turn over and we can conclude that:

  1. Mary did not collude in the murder of her worthless husband, though if the pox had carried him off she would have been perfectly happy about it because he was a complete douche.
  2. She made some really terrible choices, starting with marrying Darnley in the first place, that just laid her open for others to take advantage of her misfortune such that she never regained her footing.

Although one would think that Darnley’s murderers could have come up with a more subtle plan than “blow up the house and if that fails smother him.” The guy was known to party a little too hard – couldn’t he have fallen out a window of Edinburgh Castle or drowned in the Loch or Firth or something?

Dear FTC: I’ve owned my copy of this book for a number of years.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman

36447149Summary from Goodreads:
The story of poison is the story of power. For centuries, royal families have feared the gut-roiling, vomit-inducing agony of a little something added to their food or wine by an enemy. To avoid poison, they depended on tasters, unicorn horns, and antidotes tested on condemned prisoners. Servants licked the royal family’s spoons, tried on their underpants and tested their chamber pots.

Ironically, royals terrified of poison were unknowingly poisoning themselves daily with their cosmetics, medications, and filthy living conditions. Women wore makeup made with mercury and lead. Men rubbed turds on their bald spots. Physicians prescribed mercury enemas, arsenic skin cream, drinks of lead filings, and potions of human fat and skull, fresh from the executioner. The most gorgeous palaces were little better than filthy latrines. Gazing at gorgeous portraits of centuries past, we don’t see what lies beneath the royal robes and the stench of unwashed bodies; the lice feasting on private parts; and worms nesting in the intestines.

In The Royal Art of Poison, Eleanor Herman combines her unique access to royal archives with cutting-edge forensic discoveries to tell the true story of Europe’s glittering palaces: one of medical bafflement, poisonous cosmetics, ever-present excrement, festering natural illness, and, sometimes, murder.

I think, if you didn’t know anything about medieval or renaissance medicine, etc., then I think The Royal Art of Poison would be really entertaining for you. Herman has a great flair for pop history writing (I’ve really enjoyed her Sex with Kings and Sex with the Queen books). But for ME, while it was an enjoyable read I didn’t get much new information out of the book (an epidemiology degree and several history of medicine courses will take the shine right off the topic). However, the most fascinating section was a selection of mini-bios of historical figures who famously were or were not poisoned and whether a modern forensic examination could make that determination. (It appears that some people WERE NOT poisoned, except probably by the raft of Royal Physicians who liked to dose people with heavy metals…which would kill you anyway. With a lot of pain and agony.)

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.